Ever since 9/11, the movies have been fighting (and mostly losing) a battle to hold onto any last shred of political relevance. That punch of timely passion, once so celebrated in an era like the ’70s, has been a casualty of the popcornization of movie culture.
But now we’re in a new place: the post-Donald Trump world. Trump’s presidency, and the way it’s currently attempting to transform America, is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time obsessing over. And unlike the violent slog of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a subject that possesses an extraordinary degree of built-in drama. Sure, there’s a way the what’ll-he-do-now? made-for-cable-news daily outrage of the Trump era trumps the artifice of pop culture as much as 9/11 did. Yet far more than 9/11, it was also made for pop culture, since Trump himself is, in so many ways, a malignant piece of showbiz.
All of that has made “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s tart and lively docudrama about the Pentagon Papers, a crucial test case. It’s the first major Hollywood production to tackle, at least by historical analogy, the ominous implications of the Trump presidency. And so the very question of its relevance — does it actually have any? and, if so, what is it? — now hangs in the air.
I think “The Post” is a hugely relevant movie, but part of that is the not-so-obvious way that its message — its real message — sneaks up on you. Set in 1971, it’s a drama about how Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the gruffly driven and debonair executive editor of The Washington Post, and Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the paper’s wily but untested patrician publisher, decided, along with The New York Times, to print the top-secret government history of America’s involvement in Vietnam that had been leaked to both papers by the liberal analyst renegade Daniel Ellsberg. The movie is about how the American media of the early ’70s drew a line in the sand, standing up for the right to publish information it deemed crucial to the continuation of democracy. It’s about what freedom of the press really means.
Yet the way I just put all that sounds awfully abstract. Since Spielberg conceived “The Post” to be a message-movie-as-historical-metaphor, when it comes down to the question of what the film is “saying” about the Trump era, it’s easy — too easy — to apply the lesson of the Pentagon Papers to what’s happening today in an overly literal fashion. Forty-six years ago, the American press, led by The New York Times and The Washington Post, printed vital documents that the Nixon White House wanted to keep buried. So you might well ask: What would the equivalent situation be right now?
The first temptation is to say that it would be the media deciding to unveil documents that revealed the inner workings of the Trump presidency in some essential, previously covered-up way. Maybe it would be Trump’s tax returns. (Who, at this point, thinks that they shouldn’t be made public?) Or maybe it would be records that shed key light on the subject of the Robert Mueller investigation: the potential corruption — and possible treason — of the Trump administration’s financial and/or political collusion with the Russians.
That, at least, is the first thing you think of. If a media outlet today — it could be The New York Times, or it could be The Intercept — were to get hold of documents like those and publish them, the parallel with the Pentagon Papers would be all too obvious, and the message of “The Post” might seem all too tidy: Print the information! Keep democracy going! Shine the light of truth on all the president’s men!
Yet the potential tidiness of all that has already provoked a backlash against Spielberg’s film. Bret Easton Ellis, the novelist and podcast host who has become a super-sharp pundit of popular culture, recently attacked “The Post” by calling it “the Hillary Clinton of prestige movies: lost in a bubble, smug, completely clueless, made by the establishment.” He argued that “this story from 1971 has absolutely nothing to do with what is going on in 2017 (we are in a much more complicated moment), and yet it pushes a theory that is so flattering to journalists that despite the glaring weaknesses of the movie (and its thesis) they are going crazy over it.”
I’ll leave it to others to debate whether journalists like myself are flattered by “The Post.” Yet Ellis raises a key issue: How much relevance can a movie that’s all about printing the truth in 1971 have for an era in which assaults on the truth are coming from a totally different — and far more insidious — place? “The Post” appears to make a straight-up case for freedom of the press, but in the age of fake news, when the question that’s dividing the country has become more and more a matter of what the truth is, does the celebration of journalistic courage offered by “The Post” boil down to a kind of self-congratulatory boomer nostalgia?
That’s the thrust of Ellis’s complaint. He remains a Gen X founding father, and what he’s saying is that “The Post,” with its clear evocation of “All the President’s Men,” is replaying one of the boomers’ greatest hits. Hence the comparison to Clinton, the boomer candidate who fumbled the election by being mired, too complacently, in the politics of the past. Ellis’s critique, and others that have popped up on social media, are basically saying that “The Post” isn’t cutting edge enough, and that it’s not Bernie Sanders enough. It’s looking back rather than forward.
I get their argument (and actually think it’s an astute one), but here’s why they’re wrong. As an early-’70s period piece, “The Post” proves that even a director who’s as much of a technological virtuoso as Spielberg can’t necessarily get the wigs and the cigarette smoke right. But the reason “The Post” is such a dynamic and engaging movie is that it nails the flavor of newspaper journalism in 1971: no, not the fact that it was so activist and bankrolled, but the way that it was discovering, at that very moment, what it meant to take a more active role in deciding what the news was.
The decision to publish hundreds of pages of a highly classified document like the Pentagon Papers was, at the time, unprecedented. And, of course, The New York Times had to fight an injunction filed by the Nixon administration to muzzle the story. That’s the real truth “The Post” arrives at: what it felt like, and what it meant, for reporters and editors to reinvent their mission by crossing that line. They had to bend, and maybe break, their own rules. They had to redefine their relationship to the people in power they were covering. In doing so, they redefined the relationship of the press to the American people.
And that, of course, is what America always does: It reinvents itself for new times, new circumstances, new technologies, new corruptions. It remains free by redefining what freedom — and freedom of the press — is.
If Trump’s tax returns, or recordings of Jared Kushner’s meetings with Russian officials, ever get leaked to The New York Times, I assume that the paper will publish them — but that, let’s be clear, would not be a replay of the Pentagon Papers. No, the Pentagon Papers was about an unprecedented scoop tied to a uniquely draining and pointless morass of a war. “The Post” says that journalism, when it’s working, is always unprecedented, because it always emerges from the special circumstances of the time. That’s true, even more so, for heroic, innovative, outside-the-box journalism.
What Spielberg is really up to in “The Post” is preparing us for what lies ahead, possibly in 2018. The movie implicitly asks: If the war in Vietnam called for the Pentagon Papers, what does the situation today call for? As of now, we’re talking about two potential catastrophes: 1) the firing of Robert Mueller, which if it occurs over the next several months, with a Republican Congress in place, would provoke a constitutional crisis in which the essential meaning of American checks and balances will be hanging in the balance; and 2) the potential for the hostility between Trump and Kim Jong-un, the ruler of North Korea, to boil over into a nuclear conflagration.
Faced with the prospect of either of those circumstances, what are the forces of American media going to do then? Publish some leaked memos? Or are they going to look for, and discover, a way to report on — and influence — what’s happening that transcends what their modus operandi has been up until now? Maybe the issue of the president’s mental health needs to be placed front and center in a way that’s only just beginning to happen. Maybe liberal journalists need to think of forging a revolutionary new alliance with Republican lawmakers, or America’s military leaders, to ferret out how privately aghast many of them are at the president they’ve now slithered into bed with. Obviously, I’m not implying I have the answer; no one does. But the point is that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. And that, rather than boomer nostalgia for a golden oldie of ’70s journalism, is the real message of “The Post.”